Atman: The Soul, the Real Self

Key Points

In order to understand the Hindu worldview it is essential to grasp this first and foundational concept. Atman refers to the non-material self, which never changes. It is distinct from both the mind and the external body. This real self is beyond the temporary designations we normally ascribe to ourselves, in terms of race, gender, species and nationality.

Ideas of reincarnation are natural extensions of this preliminary concept. Consciousness, wherever it is found, is considered a symptom of the soul, and without it the body has no awareness. This life-giving soul is considered spirit (brahman), differentiating it from inert matter. Belief in the soul is not just theoretical or the property of theologians, but is a worldview expressed by Hindus in all walks of life.

A Useful Analogy: The Driver in the Vehicle

The body is compared to a vehicle and the soul to the driver

Scriptural Passages

" ... all living beings, are seated as on a machine made of the material energy."

Bhagavad-gita 18.61

"Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor any of these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be."

Bhagavad-gita 2.12

"That which pervades the entire body is indestructible."

Bhagavad-gita 2.17

See also Bhagavad-gita 2.16, 2.20, 2.23, 5.18, 13.27, 13.34, 15.7

Related Stories

The Bird in the Cage (STO-101)

A poetic tale about the need for spiritual nourishment.

Liquid Beauty (STO-102)

How beauty lies within.

Related Values and Issues

The notion of the unchanging self and the ultimate need for self-realisation are at the root of Hindu attitudes towards many important issues:

Related Practices

All forms of yoga and spiritual discipline are aimed at realising the true self. Only when one stops seeking external happiness and looks within, can one perceive the true self. According to the Bhagavad-gita, this can be achieved not only through study, meditation, and renunciation but also by active and selfless performance of one's duty.

Indeed, just prior to the great battle of Kuruksetra, Krishna encouraged Arjuna to develop his self-realisation by fighting.

Personal Reflection

Common Misunderstandings

Hindus believe that they possess a soul.

On the contrary, Hindus believe that we, like all living beings, are the soul and possess a body

Hindus believe that atman = brahman.

Whereas practically all Hindus hold that the soul is brahman (spirit), this equation can be misinterpreted to conclude that all Hindus believe that the soul and God are equal in all respects.

Meaning and Purpose